pandemic responses

Some churches remain online only, while others in same towns returned to sanctuaries months ago

As congregations navigate the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on worship, responses can vary greatly, even in the same town.

After using only online platforms for worship for 12 weeks, Journey Mennonite Church’s campuses in South Hutchinson, McPherson and Yoder, Kan., reopened for in-person worship on May 31 and have been offering physical and online options ever since.

First Mennonite Church in Hutchinson has been looking at the same community data and is still online-only.

Journey directional pastor Jim Ostlund said church leaders looked at state guidelines on group gatherings and have kept in touch with county health department officials on a weekly basis.

“We could have opened the doors and packed them in,” he said of state exemptions for churches on limitation mandates. “But we didn’t feel that was safe, so we took a more conservative route.”

Ostlund believes about 60 percent of Journey’s participants are meeting online, and 40 percent are gathering in person. The South Hutchinson facility spaces people in multiple services in chairs. The McPherson location clusters by households at round tables. There is no requirement for masks during worship and singing, but they are recommended as people enter and exit buildings.

At Yoder, families were sitting together “living room”-style at couches.

“In recent weeks our Yoder campus is experimenting with some house-church opportunities,” Ostlund said of groups of 10 to 15 people gathering in “missional communities” that meet to watch online videos and pray together. “. . . Having online and on-campus and on-mission missional communities gathering is an adaptable strategy to meet people where we are, understanding not everyone has the same perspective on the pandemic and the wearing of masks.”

First Mennonite Church’s leadership team and a task force of members who work in medical professions have thus far concluded livestreamed worship services are working, although there are plans to reassess the situation on Aug. 9.

“We would want to see the community transmission numbers go down,” said Pastor Tonya Ramer Wenger. “. . . We’ve figured out in our space we can seat 15 or 16 households safely. I don’t know when we’ll decide when that should be. . . . People really enjoy watching worship drinking coffee on the couch.”

She has taken part in a weekly online gathering of about 40 Reno County pastors, nearly all of whom serve churches that returned to in-person worship before the state experienced a spike in positive cases in July.

“Some of those big churches are back and singing, and there’s definitely a spread here,” she said. “There were definitely some churches when Reno County spiked with a transmission rate going on, and a few decided to go back online. . . .

“Things keep changing. Even though I felt a little silly being the only one not back in person, I’m really glad we stayed the course because we didn’t have to deal with the flip-flopping and agonizing.”

First Mennonite is part of Mennonite Church USA’s Western District Conference, which is split somewhat evenly between churches worshiping only online and others meeting physically indoors or outdoors.

Lancaster, Pa.

New Danville Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa., has been meeting outdoors since late May. Several congregations in MC USA’s Virgina Mennonite Conference have done the same.

A member of LMC (formerly Lancaster Mennonite Conference), New Danville’s challenges ranged from high-tech questions about digital solutions to seeking refuge from the sun and rain.

“We have two mature trees, but the problem is as the sun moves the shade gets smaller,” Pastor Robert Brody said. “We’ve set up a few 10-foot by 10-foot canopies for some additional shade and have trimmed down the services to only 50 minutes to an hour.”

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by Tim Huber, Mennonite World Review

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